Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wagyu and some crazy secrets to success

Last night, I had a truly enjoyable evening tasting different kinds of Japanese beef. The dinner was organized by Cyrene, an AIESEC friend from college who loves to eat, for an informal and quite eclectic group, at the Old Swiss Inn at Olympia Bldg along Makati Avenue; and the objective was to critique A3 grade beef steaks from Kyushu in southern Japan, and determine whether Filipinos would like them. I probably can't go into more details than this, so let me just tell you about the meat and the interesting conversation.

Blast from the past

I walked into the restaurant late, so everyone was already assembled and seated around a long table at the back; and I didn't really know who else was going, as I'd just said yes to Cyrene because the whole idea of a vertical tasting of Japanese beef seemed fun. Fortunately I knew most of the people from various parts of my life, most of it related to college even if we all didn't go to the same school. There were AIESEC friends, college friends and even a guy who I'd taught Japanese to at the Ateneo. I hadn't seen most of them in ages, so it was really nice to spend a relaxing evening just chatting away over pretty good steaks.

Interestingly -- and happily for me -- almost everyone said they read Travelife Magazine and were either a Facebook friend or Facebook fan of the magazine! Click here to become a fan of Travelife Magazine on Facebook.

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Just then the steaks came. They were grilled just right and we all loved the meat. It was soft and fatty enough, but still flavorful. I asked for only a half portion, thinking I wouldn't be able to eat an entire big steak; but later on I regretted doing so.

The trouble with fat

However, as any Japanese beef lover will tell you, Japanese beef is so sinfully tender because it's usually very fatty -- much fattier than beef in other parts of the world. The downside to this is that all the fat satiates you fairly quickly, so that you soon get a feeling of having had enough, just because it's so oily. This is why steak in a good restaurant in Japan is usually served with salt and at least two different kinds of sauces -- usually a lemon-based sauce called ponzu, and a Western-style sauce like bearnaise, red wine or black pepper -- because the sauce camouflages the oily taste and enables you to eat much more of your steak than you'd otherwise do.

Then another beef dish came -- a pretty luscious beef stew made out of veal cheeks (called hohoniku in Japan) which had been made in Japan, frozen and then handcarried to Manila. The sauce was flavorful and excellent, while the chunks of beef were just slightly fatty enough to be tender.

Secrets of success

I'd been talking to all my friends on my right for most of the evening since those on the left side seemed engrossed in their own conversation about business. But just then I turned to the gentleman on my left, one of the two visitors from Japan who had handcarried the beef from Tokyo. It turned out that the guy on my left was a very big businessman in Japan with a string of companies that had performed very well even in this grueling Japanese recession.

"What's your secret?" I asked him. After all, companies and stores were closing left and right all over Japan, but his group of companies was going from strength to strength. He said without a moment's hesitation: "Mental and physical fortitude." Then he added, "And by being very conservative about money."

"What do you mean?" I asked. Well, he seemed very pleased to be asked this question as it was obvious that this was something he was extremely proud of. He told me: "We watch our money very carefully and we don't allow any tomfoolery from our employees. Japanese in general have become very weak -- and that's why the country is in so much trouble these days. But in our company, we encourage employees to be strong...physically and mentally. We don't turn on the airconditioner in the summer, and we don't use the heater in the winter. We let our employees get used to these extreme conditions. Also, we don't look kindly on people filing sick leaves just because they feel bad. If they feel bad, they can start looking for work elsewhere. We don't have time in our company for weak employees."

"I also don't have patience for waste," he added. "In fact, we always use copy paper twice, and we turn out all the lights in our offices unless absolutely needed. Sometimes we get a visit from our bankers and they're very surprised to see the lights off. But it's just being fiscally conservative."

So, you see, between an excellent steak dinner, a couple of long-lost college friends, Travelife's Facebook account, and a Japanese businessman with quite controversial ideas about success, it was a very interesting and enjoyable evening indeed.

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